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British English accent training video 19: “rain” in British English

In this lesson I talk about words and expressions for types of rain, then read extracts from a BBC article which discusses the different words in British English for “rain”. Please read here and below.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWBbQPmIrOU

 

Types of rain

Light rain

Soft rain

Hard rain

Heavy rain

Driving rain

Spot of rain

Spotting

Spitting

Drizzle

Pelting it down

Chucking it down

Tipping it down

It’s pelting down

It’s tipping down

It’s hammering down

It’s bucketing down

It’s (really) coming down

It’s lashing down (out there)

Shower

Passing shower

Deluge

Downpour

Cloudburst

Raining cats and dogs

Another very common expression I forgot to talk about is “pouring down” or “it’s pouring down”.

 

BBC magazine article: “Fifty words for rain” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18461189)

If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, why don’t British people have 50 words for rain… or at least more words than the few they normally employ?

As the UK splashed and squelched its way through what was the wettest June on record, the most surprising news of the summer is the inclusion of fake clouds in the elaborate plans for the Olympic opening ceremony.

So, somewhere above it hovered imagineered clouds – the message to the world, presumably, is that we can take a joke about our weather. And if providence chooses not to rain on our parade, then we’ll rain on our own for the hell of it.

It just goes to show you how deeply the very thought of rain is woven into the experience of being British.

And yet our official lexicon of rainfall is woefully buttoned-up and limited.

The Met Office talks simply of light, moderate and severe downfalls. That’s rather disappointing when you consider the poetry of the Beaufort Scale for measuring wind, with its evocative talk of smoke rising vertically on a calm day, and then goes on to describe singing sounds from telegraph wires and the difficulty of walking upright as breezes intensify into gales.

After all, if it’s really true that the Inuit have 50 words for snow on the basis that they see enough of the stuff to chart its infinite variety, then surely in the UK we ought to have 50 words for rain.

There’s drizzle of course – although I’m not sure that’s an officially recognised term – but not much beyond that until you get to deluge (which is French) and downpour (which is dull).

I turn to the linguist Geoff Pullum from Edinburgh University for an explanation as to why the English language appears to lag behind Inuit in the richness and sophistication with which it describes the weather.

“I have long experience in this depressing sub-area,” Pullum tells me. “The idea is neither empirically true nor practically necessary.

“There’s a screwiness to the logic here [of having 50 words for snow]. As humans we experience lots of variety in everyday life but we don’t try to bring it under linguistic observation. It’s just observably not what we do.”

Still when we posed the question to the Broadcasting House audience on Radio 4 we were deluged, inundated and flooded with suggestions for words for rain.

One heartening conclusion is that colloquial English is a lot more vibrant, colourful and expressive than its slightly grander cousin deployed in the Met Office.

There are plenty I’d like to hear weather forecasters using on the air:

  • tippling down
  • pelting down
  • ·  raining cats and dogs

 

And there are more with the sturdy feel of regional English. Luttering downsiling down and plothering down are among my favourites. You can’t honestly put them in order of severity, of course, but all conjure that sense of looking out of the window on a rainy day somewhere in provincial Britain and seeing rain hammering relentlessly from a sky the colour of cigarette ash.

One of the commonest and most vividly descriptive phrases is raining stair-rods. I like it because I shouldn’t think many people in the UK have seen a stair-rod for 50 years or more so it has the comfortable feeling of a phrase your mother or father might have used to describe the rain.

The analogy, of course, is the rain falling in long, straight streaks – both German and French have words using the imagery of ropes or cords to do the same thing.

It also strikes me as being a slightly more useful point of comparison than another phrase we were offered – raining chair-legs.

And why don’t these phrases find their way into the lexicon of TV weather forecasting? Perhaps it’s because we still crave a little formality on TV and radio.

BBC weather forecaster Matt Taylor says there is no style guide for talking about the weather.

“There’s no book of words you shouldn’t use, so I think there’s a bit of self-censorship there – sometimes you do want to say that it’s going to be chucking it down out there. But of course there are a lot of colloquialisms here so there’s also the point of whether people will really know exactly what you mean.”

None of us – with the possible exception of Taylor and his fellow meteorologists – knows exactly what the weather will be doing next month.

But when that fake cloud splutters into life and rain begins to fall on the green and pleasant land below, it’s a pleasure to think that all over the UK, families will have a rich and varied vocabulary to call on when it comes to describing it.

 

Further reading

Science behind wet summer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18783422

Problems caused by heavy rain and floods in Britain: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20470728

 

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